Andrew Davies asks, has Bernie’s failure to secure a German GP deal brought the sport into disrepute?
If there is any luck, the official loss of the German Grand Prix for 2015 should mark a watershed in the history of the sport. On Friday, what had long been suspected would happen was confirmed, the World Motorsport Council cut the German GP from the official calendar giving us a 19-race season.
German circuits Hockenheim and the Nurburgring were due to hold the race in successive years. But thanks to high prices, only 50,000 turned up to see the race at Hockenheim in 2014 and the Nurburgring circuit went into administration and was taken over. The new owners didn’t fancy plunging themselves into debt by taking on the contract negotiated by the previous circuit owners.
Needless to say, if the biggest economy in Europe – with three home drivers, with a four-times World Champion, and with an iconic German car marque that will win the title – cannot get crowds in through the gate, then something is very definitely wrong.
The reason for the high ticket prices has been the cost that Bernie Ecclestone, representing the Commercial Rights Holder, charges circuits for hosting a race. Race hosting fees vary from little or nothing for the Monaco Grand Prix (where grandstand seats cost in excess of £300/$450) to huge sums of $25m for F1 debutants, such as Azerbaijan or Russia.
And whereas in the UK sports fans are used to paying out quite a lot to see International Rugby and Premier League football matches, ticket prices for the German football league, the Bundesliga, are much more regulated. You can go along and watch FC Koln in the Bundesliga for 10 euros – that’s £7.50.
So German fans have been leaving the sport in droves – and what has Bernie Ecclestone done in response? Threaten to take races like the British, German and Italian races away and fling them round the globe to oil-rich Caspian Sea states like Azerbaijan, or countries desperate for some political impact such as Turkey and (maybe soon) Qatar.
The setting up and then abandoning of races in non-traditional F1 supporting countries makes the sport look like it has no idea what it’s doing – Turkey, Korea and India have all come and gone, having been obliged to create a massive infrastructure along the way. Bernie knows that holding an F1 race brings prestige and worldwide media attention and has traded on that.
The evolution of the F1 calendar isn’t about bringing new fans to the sport, it’s about bringing money in the only way Bernie knows how. The former motorbike salesman loves a deal and renegotiating hosting contracts and planning new ones, keeps the 84-year-old out of the pub and off the golf course. He’s not planning for the future, he’s just carrying on the only way he knows how. That’s why we have 20-race (or 21-race, if you include the stillborn 2015 Korean GP!) seasons reduced to 19 all the time.
How long can we go on like this?
Deep in the FIA’s book of rules are various statutes about bringing the sport into disrepute. And Bernie’s failure to secure a German Grand Prix must surely do that. It unbalances the calendar, creating a three-week gap between races; what’s more, given overwhelming German success in the sport and the Schumacher legacy, it tempts the analogy "couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery".
Grand Prix racing started off in France in 1906, the FIA are based in Paris, yet there is no French Grand Prix because of the high race hosting fee. That’s embarrassing enough. The loss of this year’s German Grand Prix and the harassment of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza should surely tip the FIA into action.
There was once British Racing Green, Belgian racing Yellow and Italian Racing Scarlet, with the French in Blue and the Germans in White (which they famously scraped off to create a silver arrow). All these countries’ home races have now been threatened or lost during Bernie’s watch, purely in the interests of his paymasters.
It’s time the FIA took some action and wrested control of the GP calendar and set a limit on race hosting fees. The loss of the German race should mark a watershed. It’s now up to FIA boss Jean Todt to acquire some cojones and take some action before we see headlines like: 'Qatar Replaces Monza in GP Schedule'